Teller County retreat center has big plans for growth

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Construction moves forward on El Tesoro’s chapel outside Woodland Park.

A small spiritual retreat center that was Teller County’s best kept secret is now shouting from the mountaintops its plans to become a conference and wedding destination.

The El Tesoro de Los Angeles Retreat Center west of Woodland Park, once reserved exclusively for small religious retreats, is building a $7.5 million conference center that will seat up to 250 and feature a commercial kitchen, meeting rooms and high-end gift shops.

El Tesoro also is building a chapel and two $1 million VIP tree-house suites that the owner hopes will make the property a dream wedding destination.

“It’s exciting — it truly is,” said Mary Cathryn Haller, El Tesoro executive director. “When you drive up here there is a sense of serenity, but you could also have a square dance up here too.”

The construction and expanded business mission come from the notion that the 70-acre property should be available to more people, Haller said.

The added meeting space and banquet hall could be a boon for Woodland Park’s hotels, bed and breakfast inns and restaurants, said Debbie Miller, president of the Greater Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center. The Ute Pass Cultural Center can accommodate events for up to 250, she said. But, the region, which has 1,712 lodging rooms, could always use more meeting space.

“It is their intent to let the world know they are here and it’s an absolutely beautiful facility,” Miller said. “It makes our region known to other areas of the country, that they could come here — a company, whether they are spiritual or not, can come here for retreats or team building or meetings.”

Haller said businesses go past Woodland Park to Breckenridge for conferences and meetings. She wants to stop them in their path. El Tesoro’s four-building retreat center is located in the forest, four miles from the intersection of U.S. Highway 24 and County Road 25 west of Woodland Park. Haller already has started advertising to corporate business groups, clubs and organizations. Prices vary according to group size and which facilities are used, with discounts for nonprofit organizations. Typically, it averages to $70.50 per bed, per night.

The retreat center is open year-around for individual overnight stays, small weddings and small groups. This month, the Broadmoor District Rotary Club held an annual event there. This weekend, the center will host its first wedding. Coming in October: the International Wine Guild.

The goal is to book the place solid every day, Haller said.

The aspens’ quiet beauty attracted Mary Guenzel to the area 12 years ago. She was visiting friends in Teller County when she came across a 9,000-square-foot house, which had been seized by the IRS and was for sale. She bought it.

Guenzel lived several years in the eight-bedroom home, which has a cabin-style exterior and views of Pikes Peak and Pike National Forest. Then a nearby 6,000-square-foot home came up for sale. She bought it.

The two homes have a storied past. One’s owner kept an arsenal and used the basement as a shooting range. The other was used for witness protection, Haller said. Guenzel saw a better use.

“This would make a wonderful retreat,” she told friends.

She turned the shooting range into a small chapel, a game room for children, a TV room and an office. She turned the second home’s five-car garage into a small conference room with video and projection equipment for small groups up to 50. Then she opened the two homes to Catholic marriage retreats and youth groups. Typically, two groups a month used the property.

In 2009, Guenzel built a 1,800-square foot lodge on the property, adding four rooms to the retreat center and more overnight opportunities for small groups.

But she wanted more people to enjoy the property. In February, Guenzel hired Haller with the plans of making the retreat center more ecumenical and more available to businesses.

Guenzel, now 86, lives in Colorado Springs and plans to bequeath all property and facilities to the Woodland Park-based Nuestra Senora de la Paz Foundation, a nonprofit founded by Guenzel that will continue to run the business, Haller said.

The conference center and tree-house suites are expected to open by spring 2014. Haller expects to have a wedding planner onsite but will continue partnerships with local restaurants for catering.

This month, construction crews will build a gazebo on the main house’s lawn, near an outdoor patio and greenhouse. Construction already has begun on the chapel.

“(Guenzel) wants people to enjoy it,” Haller said, “to see the beauty of it, and see the serenity of it.”